Let’s Talk About “Let’s Talk Coronavirus”

News about the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the media for months, but amid the flood of information, it can be difficult to find answers to your most pressing questions. “Let’s Talk Coronavirus” is here to help.

The new show, hosted by Professors Rachel Bergstrom and Ron Watson, is aired live on Facebook each week, allowing listeners to chime in with questions or just sit back and listen.

Rachel Bergstrom is a Biology professor who teaches about cell biology, emerging diseases, and neuroscience. Ron Watson, professor of Political Science and Health and Society, offers expertise surrounding public health, health policy, racial and ethnic politics, and health disparities. Each episode, they bring in a guest Beloiter to add a new spin on the conversation, tackling subjects from mask-wearing, to economics, to the future of higher education. You can tune in to live shows each week on the Beloit College Facebook page, or listen to the complete collection on YouTube.

After months of tuning in to their show, I got a chance to sit down and talk with Ron and Rachel about “Let’s Talk Coronavirus.”

Tell me a little bit about “Let’s Talk Coronavirus.”

Rachel: It starts from the perspective that Ron and I like talking about where our interests overlap, and that is public health and health-related things. It’s an opportunity for us to look at what we know about the outbreak and what we’re interested in learning more about. [It’s also an opportunity] to talk about these things so that we can help people understand some of the more technical parts of the outbreak and see the interconnectedness of how disease and behavior and the like all contribute to outbreaks and to the pandemic. [It’s about] how we respond to the outbreak, reminding us that it is a human experience–that we are not all automatons existing within the pandemic, but we’re humans who are living through the pandemic.

Ron: On the one hand, we were looking for a way to connect with our students, given the extraordinary circumstances of the Spring semester. None of us expected to have to suddenly switch to teaching online, or to not being in person, and we were looking for ways to stay connected to students. And at the same time, we also thought that given the misinformation that was already emerging at that point, this might be an important opportunity to give students and their family members to disseminate some factual information and to double down on it with respect to the coronavirus.

Being a long-time fan, I was curious about what prompted their endeavor, and the answer wasn’t surprising. Over and over, both Ron and Rachel expressed their desire to connect to their students and communities in meaningful ways. With this show, they’ve found a creative in-road to explore relevant aspects of the pandemic and share important information with other Beloiters.

What inspired you to begin the show?

Rachel: To be honest, I was out on a run and I was really heartbroken about being away from students, and I was really concerned about [missing] that connection. I was teaching Emerging Diseases at the time and knew how interested my current students were about the coronavirus. I knew that I wanted an opportunity to talk to somebody about this, and to interact about the outbreak too. And [I instantly thought of Ron], given our overlapping interests. And that’s really the origin story. I stopped my run and texted Ron and said “What do you think?” and he said “Let’s do it, of course. Why wouldn’t we do this?”

Both hosts were fairly new to producing a show like this, but they jumped at the chance to use a new medium to generate educational conversations about the challenges that have arisen from the coronavirus pandemic. As they both pointed out, this show is just one example of how the entire Beloit campus has risen to the challenge of re-thinking education in the time of coronavirus.

Have either of you done any podcasting before?

Ron: I’ve appeared on one or two podcast episodes, but I’ve never done anything self-generated like this before. That was one of the things that attracted me to it when Rachel brought it up. I thought “This is a great opportunity just to see how this will work.” It’s funny because I’m sort of a technology and computer guy, and have been for a long time, and I have, in several different contexts said “Let’s start a video blog about this” or “We should do a podcast about that” but then you think “Well, I’d have to get a podcast mic” or “I’ve got to do all this set up” and then you don’t end up doing it. But this was different, knowing Rachel…as much as I like to execute ideas, Rachel is like the execute-trix. She’s making this happen, this is going. So I’m like “I’m ready to go with this person because I know we’re going to make it work.”

Rachel: Yeah! I had never made a podcast before. I listen to podcasts obsessively, and I’d thought about making one, but I’d never actually done anything like this and I was actually a little bit nervous about the technology side of it. But thankfully, Whitney Helm has been amazing for us. She’s helped us get on Facebook, so we didn’t have to worry about some of the concerns we had using Zoom. I firmly believe in the “I will find or make a way” approach. I think that’s actually one of the great opportunities that’s arisen as a part of the pandemic. I’ve seen this across the board for our whole campus.

At the time of this interview, Ron and Rachel had hosted 10 episodes of “Let’s Talk Coronavirus”. These shows have allowed them to deepen their appreciation for their colleagues’ wealth of expertise in a wide variety of disciplines. These multi-disciplinary discussions have been such a success, “Let’s Talk Coronavirus” is now being offered as a class for incoming students.

What did you enjoy most about doing this project? What surprised you?

Ron: I think what I have enjoyed is the sheer variety of people that we saw signing in, especially when we were still doing it as an open Zoom call. I was honestly surprised in our first few episodes, when I looked at the full mosaic view of everyone listening. It was lots of our colleagues, lots of our students, and I thought “Wow, people really want to talk about this.” That was really exciting. In terms of what I’ve taken away from it, it’s obviously forced me to stay engaged with this topic–which wasn’t hard–but it also created this opportunity to bring in guests, including some of our other colleagues that brought different perspectives that I hadn’t imagined. I can talk ad nauseum around issues of race and issues of the political and cultural war around this, but I’m not deeply versed in, say, the economic ramifications of the coronavirus. I’m not deeply versed in the things that our guest, Bryan Alexander, was talking about, like the future of higher education. I like thinking about this stuff, and I like speculating about this stuff, but having someone there who has that as their area of expertise, and we get to have a conversation about it–that’s just brilliant.

And of course, I’m really excited about how this conversation was so popular that people wanted to turn it into a class, and now that class is over-subscribed.

Rachel: Yeah! In teaching Emerging Diseases–it’s a Biology class, but it can’t just be Biology, you know, so that’s been an area that I’ve done a lot of learning myself, in the time that I’ve been at the college. And what’s been really exciting, like Ron said, is to dive a little deeper into the issues and the questions. The thing that has stuck with me, and that I now keep hearing over and over again was when Diep Phan, a professor in Econ, said something to the effect of “We can’t fix the economy until we fix the pandemic.” I just couldn’t get my mind around it until she said it. Then I thought “That’s it! Of course! You can’t fix the economy until you fix the pandemic!” That was a huge lightbulb moment for me. It’s an opportunity to learn things like that and to see how it all connects. 

I’m going to be teaching about this for the rest of my career, so what do I do with that? It tells me that, first of all, I need to talk to my colleagues more in an academic sense about their expertise and their perspective on this pandemic. And secondly, I need to keep learning. Of course, I already knew this, but now it’s a very succinct, very clear thought that I have to keep pushing on and keep thinking on it. So that has been really exciting.

July 13, 2020

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